Beloved Physicians: St Luke, Thomas Dent Mütter, and Jesus

Thomas Dent Mütter
We acquired the patronage of St Luke here at Berkeley Divinity School by a somewhat strange means. The Gospel of Luke has various associations that could inspire theological education: the Gospel’s emphasis on God’s action in history, and on the poor and marginalized, not least. Saint Luke is even, according to some accounts patron of students - but no that wasn’t it. He is also patron of artists, and butchers - and, of course, of physicians.

The first St Luke’s Chapel, at the former Berkeley campus in Middletown, Conn., was the gift of Mary Alsop Mütter in memory of her late husband, the physician Thomas Dent Mütter. Mütter - subject of the 2014 New York Times bestseller Dr Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz - is buried in Middletown, but his name is probably better remembered in Philadelphia, where the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians is named for a man who was one of the leading figures in medicine in the nineteenth century.

Mütter died in 1859, at the age of 48; shortly after, his grieving widow, whose family were from Middletown, gave the Chapel to the fledgling seminary, its dedication to St Luke a reflection of her departed husband’s achievement and of his faith. As Berkeley’s founding Dean (and later Bishop of Connecticut and Presiding Bishop) John Williams put it in his sermon at the dedication of the Chapel in 1861, “He (Mütter) was a 'beloved physician,' ministering not to the body only, but to the spirit also. And so, from the 'beloved physician' of the Scriptures, this chapel takes its name: and ...because, here, they are to be trained, whose duty it will be, to minister 'the wholesome medicines of the doctrines,' by which 'the diseases of our souls may be healed'" - quoting Thomas Cranmer's Collect for St Luke as it appeared in the then Prayer Book of 1789.

Mütter was a pioneer of plastic surgery; not cosmetic surgery, but the restoration of mobility and functionality to people who whether congenitally or as often by horrific accidents such as industrial burns were not only disfigured but impeded from mobility and other basic functions. He not only developed and practiced new techniques of surgery but advocated for the equally novel and controversial practices of anesthesia and antiseptics. Some of Mütter’s contemporaries and colleagues were opposed to anesthetic in particular because they believed “pain [was] a desirable, salutary, and conservative manifestation of life force.” (Dr Mütter's Marvels, 193). As a practitioner of surgery that improved quality of life and as advocate of humane and wholesome practices, Mütter was thus a “beloved physician” worthy of commemoration.

The idea of the Gospel as medicine, and of ministry as healing, is as old as the Gospel itself. While sickness and injury have cross-cultural force, Mütter’s challenges help us understand how much more powerful and confronting it might have been, and might yet be, to describe the Gospel as therapeia as Luke does - as healing. Healing is not necessarily painless - in fact it is rarely so.

Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 study Soul Searching described the religion of American youth as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In that worldview, there is a God somewhere (that’s why it’s described as somehow “deist"), who wants us to be nice (that’s the “moralistic" part) and who can help we have need, and who in their words “provide[s] therapeutic benefits to [the] adherent.”

It's too easy however to use this kind of analysis as part of some narrative of decline from a supposed pristine past, when everyone believed the way they were supposed to - "let's make the Gospel great again,” I hear you say. It was 80 years ago however when our late colleague here at Yale Richard Niebuhr performed a similar diagnosis when he famously spoke of belief in “a God without wrath (who) brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 193). The issue is not about youth - it is about people.

Smith and Denton have, like many of us,  given up the word “therapy” as a hostage to the enemy in trying to describe a problem. To quote them again, God is in the worldview of moralistic therapeutic deism "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (165). In fact therapeia, the healing for which people come to Jesus, is not merely the work of the butler and the “therapist” in Smith and Denton's modern sense, but is the costly service of transformation.

The work of a theological school is arguably two-fold; it is to train healers, but also to be a place of healing. The great Origen of Alexandria called Jesus the "chief physician" who called as pupils those who were "to be physicians of the soul in his Church" (Exp. on Ps. 37). We are here as committed to the training of those spiritual physicians; not the therapists of popular imagination, nor the reckless barber surgeons of the pre-modern era, but of those who will, with the chief physician as guide, offer their skills to lead communities of healing and wholeness. They can only do that work of healer as knowing themselves healed, or as still being healed. The therapeia of God is true, transformative, continuous, and not without pain, and goes on in this place in the service of the Holy Trinity, and under the patronage of St Luke.

ALMIGHTY God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please thee, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2009.


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